Food Forward MI: Where Food Access and Community Development Merge


A community food system isn’t just about connecting local growers to a farm market or boosting seasonal tourism.

fruit-1022519_640Everyone has a stake in community. Not only do we all eat, which affects our health and well-being, but we must purchase that food thereby contributing to our local economy. Food also transcends our culture and brings us together through social networks. Yet, in most areas there is a disconnect between farmer and consumer – a critical linkage – ultimately short changing both physical and economic health as well as missing cultural opportunity to come together. This is where food access and community development merge to ultimately inform community food systems. We can keep dollars circulating in local economies, reduce our carbon foot print and allow for more opportunity within community-level decision making.

The Triple Bottom Line: local profit staying in our local economy, overlaid with environmental integrity supporting the planet, building health and social vibrancy for all residents.

dishes-938747_640The idea of food access, where all residents are able to procure fresh, healthy and affordable food is taken for granted by many people. However, for almost 20% of Michigan residents living at or below the poverty line (U.S. Census Data), this is a challenge rather than a given. For those nearly 20%, food security – the availability and access to food – can be an episodic or recurring challenge. For those residing in more affluent areas, food sovereignty is also on the table because as basic needs are addressed, attention is tuned to determining who makes decisions about agricultural policy and how it will ultimately affect health and economy while emphasizing local control.

In particular, regions with high poverty also tend to experience higher levels of obesity due to lack of healthy food options. In 2010 across Michigan, about 66% of our population was considered overweight, and 30% obese, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Together, that’s 96% of our population weighing in as unhealthy. Not coincidentally, only 32% of adults in Michigan reported consuming recommended levels of fruits (two or more servings per day), and only about 24% of adults reported consuming recommended amounts of vegetables per day (or three servings). This is at least in part due to a lack of healthy food choices.

Is there opportunity for economic development utilizing our regional bounty to support health?

food-960070_640Agriculture contributes more than $101 billion to Michigan’s annual state economy and makes up about 22% of the state’s employment according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Capitalizing on our natural bounty, many regions are addressing those challenges discussed above and leveraging them as opportunity to bridge health and economic wellness. This is done by creatively harnessing momentum around not only stereotypical foodie culture and artisanal agri-tourism “experience”, but also for example, the development of food innovation districts and institutional purchasing. In a 2008 study authored by David S. Conner, PhD. et al. entitled The Food System as an Economic Driver: Strategic Applications for Michigan, the questions were asked: “How much more (fruits and vegetables) should we eat?, How much is available seasonally?, How much money would farmers make?, and How many jobs and dollars would that create?”

vegetable-777473_640The answers were surprising. Michiganders were found to require about 2.15 more servings of daily fruits and 1.79 times more servings of vegetables. If these nutritional goals were met based on current average size of fruit farms at 56 acres and vegetable farms at 44 acres, that’s another 182 fruit and 619 vegetable farms (respectively) of average size required. Meeting those USDA dietary requirements utilizing Michigan products was estimated to increase the net total of Michigan jobs by 1,780 and $211 million in net income to the state – or 529 fruit-related jobs with $42.4 million income and 1,251 vegetable-related jobs generating $169.1 million. Unfortunately, we’ll still have to buy our bananas and coffee elsewhere, but we do have the technology to extend our growing season to meet this need.

How can participatory engagement within community development help build food security (and sovereignty) while harnessing health and economic opportunity that ultimately reduces our carbon footprint?

playmobil-451203_640Some define community development as community benefit organizations, aka non-profits or individuals, building ongoing relationships for the purpose of applying and implementing collective vision for the benefit of residents. Others define community development as a planned process with the specific intention of working with stakeholder groups to address issues affecting their well-being. To take this proactive approach to regional community food systems development, people are buying local when possible (thereby reducing the amount of resources used and emissions expelled), and also have the opportunity to get involved with the way food interfaces within their community. But there’s more…

We have the capacity to meet local need. Can you help connect the dots?

This blog will take a tour of those cutting edge programs, regions, policy-making and partnerships driving the frontline of community development and local food access in Michigan. We’ll hear from stakeholders including omnivores of all ages, farmers, business owners, educators and non-profit programmers about how they’re influencing their community food systems and what it means for the health of residents and the economy. Last month we attempted to provide context and backdrop against which to offset local food system development and with this blog discussed what that means with emphasis on opportunity for impacting regional triple bottom line. Next month, we will begin to discuss participatory strategy and development necessary to do this. Starting with “food hubs” – a physical or virtual model for aggregating, distributing and marketing locally grown food – we’ll look at highlights from businesses and non-profits ranging from the Upper Peninsula and West Michigan to the Capital City and Detroit. This blog poses the questions, “What must be in place so that larger populations may purchase local food at necessary volume?” and follow-up with “How can I get involved?”


mary-zumbrunnenAbout the author: Mary ZumBrunnen is the Director of Talent & New Market Initiatives at Prima Civitas, a statewide economic development non-profit catalyzing Michigan. She holds a BS in agriculture and natural resource communications from Michigan State University (MSU) and an MS in community, agriculture, recreation and resource studies, also from MSU. Currently she is pursuing a master of business administration. A small business owner and backyard farmer, Mary energetically works to facilitate sustainable development through citizen engagement. Connect with Mary on Twitter @Mary_ZumBrunnen and learn about other development projects today.